A Right to Write?

Post Date: August 22nd, 2008


“You never really understand a person until you consider things from his point of view – until you climb into his skin and walk around in it.”

Atticus Finch to Scout in Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird

Today’s Word Count for the Novel: 268,822. My goal was to cut 825; I cut 491. 334 shy of my goal.

Rationalization: Sometimes you gotta move things around before you finally cut them. I’m saying my last goodbyes to some passages.

Page Count for the Novel: 1002

What do writers have the right to write?

Free speech says, “Anything save “Fire!” in a crowded theater.” But to paraphrase St. Paul – “almost anything” may be possible, but it ain’t all permissible.

Again, to invoke my husband’s bluegrass mantra: Just because you can, that don’t mean you should.

I’ve potentially trespassed, according to some — a former writing group and from a friend and mentor, all of whose opinions I respect greatly.

The short story appearing in Relief Journal’s Volume 2.3 comes from a perspective some would not consider right for a white girl. I chose to write from the point of view of someone of a different race.

I’d rather you support Relief Journal than give away the story (by the way: no payment in it for me if you purchase). For now, I do want to meditate on two reactions I received at earlier drafts of this story.

Said someone in my writer’s group: “I’m not sure you have the right to write this story.” I can’t interpret her meaning with 100% accuracy, but I can imagine that perhaps the issue wasn’t about my attempt to walk in the shoes of this character. Rather, one translation might be, “Follow the flights of imagination, especially in order to walk in someone else’s moccasins, but don’t try publishing this.” In other words, exercises promoting empathy and cross-cultural understanding are good, but putting a story out for public consumption smacks of, “Look at me, I know what I’m talking about.” And the follow-up question would be, “How on earth could you truly know?” A point well worth raising.

Said my friend and mentor in an e-mail to me, “(It’s) something about the audacity/privilege of a white woman to imagine she could speak for a black woman when the white woman couldn’t (by definition) have experienced some of the episodes the black mother did. . . I do have concern about the perspective, however, as presumably, it is projection. I sit here asking myself if this story challenges white supremacist norms and consciousness by taking the reader inside this situation – or if it perpetuates white supremacist norms and consciousness in a subtle, complex way.”

These are valuable questions. To me, they are just the kind of questions literature should inspire for thoughtful readers such as my friend. She also added at one point, “Yet I liked the story and thought it was important to read.”

I like my friend’s use of the word “projection.” There is no way I can’t project both myself into a character of another race as well as project my assumptions, stereotypes, and norms into this character. I can’t escape it as a white person, and if I were black, or a man, or any other human permutation, I would be in the same boat. I will read another’s life as a book filled with my own bias.

Again, I can’t speak with 100% accuracy here either, but my friend’s comment gets at the problem of power – that whites still speak from paradigms and positions of dominance – and therefore whites, when writing any sort of fiction, risk yet another trespass in keeping with slavery, Jim Crow, blackface, Elvis stealing blues, and other ways whites have either oppressed or adopted what they conceive to be “blackness.”

What would then mitigate such as act as mine that’s carried out in this historical and racial context? I would say, Redeeming answers to the following questions:

Does the story reveal something true of humanity rather than sketch a stereotype? Is the character a unique individual with a special story to tell?
Does the story more closely connect readers across racial and cultural lines?
Does the story use its conflict to explore redemption? Who or what is redeemed, and why?
Does the reader learn something?
Do I, the writer, learn something?

If you read the story, tell me what you think. Or tell me your thoughts on this issue of point of view and whether or not the author’s race is crucial to a story’s authority, authenticity, and truthfulness.

I will say this: I think publishing this story in 2008, rather than 1998, 1988, 1978, or 1968 (the year of my birth and Dr. King’s assassination) is much more permissible than it ever was. Your thoughts on that subject would be appreciated, too!

Robert Olen Butler once commented in an interview (and this is my paraphrase, since I searched unsuccessfully for that interview online) that as a Midwestern, middle-aged white male who grew up with two parents happily married he has more in common with a Vietnamese woman living with her happily-married parents – as opposed to his trying to write the story of a Midwestern, middle-aged white male whose family suffers from divorce. It’s a fascinating thought, and to me a hopeful, life-affirming one, that as writers we can bridge these seemingly vast canyons with our words and imaginations. I treasure stories from Eudora Welty and Doris Betts who walk beautifully and sensitively in the shoes of black women, just as I treasure a man’s walk in the shoes of three women, Michael Cunningham’s The Hours.

Then again, the road to hell is paved with all kinds of good, patronizing, and self-satisfied intentions.

In no way am I done with this topic. Will return to it soon.

Today’s Writing Goal: I didn’t meet my last writing goal by 334 words. I’ll shoot down the middle and try to cut 500 words by the next tally, and I will edit the hard copy (8 pages) awaiting me on my desk. (I printed out all 1040-some and have been hard-copy-editing, which leads to these word count goals. After I entered changes through page 500, I stopped and printed again and am now cutting more.)

Writing Prompts: Please note that writing prompts should always be pursued in emotionally-safe environments with the supervision of someone who interested in encouraging good writing, self-awareness, and reflection. A wonderful resource is Pat Schneider’s Writing Alone and With Others.

© Lyn Hawks. Writing prompts for one-time classroom use only and not for publication in any form elsewhere without permission of this author.

Elementary: What color are you?

Colors express all kinds of feelings, and we use language to help describe how we feel. Some people say, “I am blue,” when they are sad, and “I’m seeing red,” when they are angry. Can you think of any other ways we use colors to describe feelings? Try yellow and green and see what you might have heard.

Describe how you have felt today, yesterday, and the day before. Think of times when you felt sadness, anger, joy, peace, jealousy, and fear. Draw a picture of your heart and divide it up like a pizza or a patchwork quilt. Then use any color to color in parts of your heart that have those feelings. Match a color to each feeling

Now write about one of those feelings. Begin with this sentence, “When I feel ___________(name the emotion), I am ______________ (name the color).” Now tell a story about that time. Use lots of detail: what did you see, hear, smell, taste, and/or touch that day you had this feeling?”

Secondary and Adult:

We know that people discriminate based on skin color. But we also know the famous phrase and vision of Dr. Martin Luther King that asks us to judge people not by race but by the “content of their character.” In fact, race is not well-defined by anthropologists and sociologists. So why shouldn’t we “color” ourselves? When we think of this societal convention identifying people by race and juxtapose it against the color wheel we know from art class, suddenly skin color can lose its significance. Which is not to say that race and racism don’t matter, but rather, that if we can step away from the world and all its judgments for a moment, we can ask, How do I color myself?

Name all the colors you know, from primary to secondary to every shade of color that is important to you. Then pick one of the following two prompts.

Color Me Red, Color Me Blue: Pick the colors that best suit your personality, your interests, and your life experience. Write a self-description that begins, “Color me _____ (pick the color) because…”

Inventing Idioms: You may have heard, “I’m blue” when someone is sad or other colors used to describe emotions. Name some other colors and how they are used in common expressions (also known as idioms).

Now invent some new expressions.

You can use metaphor, such as “I’m blue,” where you give an emotion a color.

You can use an action with an implied metaphor, such as “I’m seeing red,” where red represents the emotion of anger and the action of seeing is part of that metaphor’s vehicle.

Start a story or a personal essay where this new idiom begins the description of your emotional experience.

8 Comments

  1. Anonymous says:

    Lyn:

    If someone criticizes one’ right to write from a different perspecitve, he or she should get a life. What a narrow point of view those people must have. Who are they to pontificate about this?

    One does not have to live an experience to be an expert about it. Different views provide the texture and nuance to such experiences.

    The right to write is protected by the first amendment so tell those critics to learn their history.

    Archibald

  2. Lyn Hawks says:

    Hi, Archibald,

    I think this is a really complex issue. I think what you are interpreting as narrowness is true for some but not for the folks who gave me this advice. If anything, I would call it a “protectionist” viewpoint, a caution against exercising speech that’s a little too free. That said, I believe a lot of good comes from walking in the shoes of others via fiction and then sharing it with the world, as long as I, the author, am open to a particular black woman trying to walk in a particular white woman’s shoes. Note the word “particular” — if the fictional individual isn’t unique, then s/he’s a stereotype, and the question for my story is, Did I eschew stereotype as much as possible and forge something new?

    The challenge of course is that some stereotypes are true: white people can be bad dancers, across a population; white people can ask stupid questions of people of color; white people can be racists. Easier to speak of my own race than others — I don’t need to invoke stereotypes of other races here. So, did I show that nuanced view of more than one race in this story (or, is it possible I showed this particular black character showing racism toward white characters, who themselves were caricatures?) That’s also worth asking!

    I’ll be curious to see what readers think and whether or not they see what to me the story is really about.

    Thanks for your thoughts!

    Lyn

  3. bobmust says:

    Sherman Alexie, the writer of northwestern Native American extraction, castigated Tony Hillerman, among others, who write from the Native American POV. Alexie’s complaint has been similar to that of your writer’s group member.
    But Hillerman writes from two agendas, if you will. First, his stories are mysteries taking place in the Southwest. And he tries to share what he’s learned from authentic Native Americans about their cultures. (I, for one, enjoy the former agenda and learn from the latter.)
    There are two things wrong with this sort of complaint. The first is that writers shouldn’t be limited to what they know from personal experience. I, for instance, am currently writing about a rarely seen (in fiction) aspect of WWII- the Eastern Front. I don’t know beans about that from experience, but I’ve spent some four years researching it. And I’ve interviewed numerous people who did have the experience I’m writing about. Integrity is the main ingredient in writing, and I felt I needed copious amounts of research to speak to my subject with proper authenticity and integrity. If a writer can put hand to keyboard with proper integrity, I don’t think harm has been done.
    The second concern I have with this sort of complaint (and here I suppose I’m playing the curmudgeon) is in what you call the “protectionist” viewpoint. This has cropped up as literature has become more multicultural, and as people of previously submerged cultures begin to be published widely. That these cultures are now being read about from the perspective of their own members is laudable. Even when their writing isn’t as developed as NY editors would like all writing to be, I suppose it’s a good thing to see it in print. But when these folks start to complain that I shouldn’t be allowed to write from a Slav’s perspective, or a Hindi’s, or even from a black American’s, then we’re seeing the dark side of multiculturalism.
    To the contrary, I would say it’s possible for someone – from China, for instance – to write about America, as Ha Jin has done, from a perspective impossible for Americans to conceive of, and in a way all Americans can learn from.
    Artists are and always have been at the forefront of social re-positioning, and that’s because they’ve been free of the constraints of politics. If we’re going to let multiculturalism handcuff us as artists, then society won’t continue to have the benefit of art’s vision as a catalyst of worldwide social development.

  4. Lyn: “A Right to Write?”should never be a question unless you’re plagarizing someone’s work. How would we, as writers, ever develop a character? I write from the viewpoint of men and women, young and old. Does that mean, because I’m not a man, I cannot write from a male viewpoint? Ridiculous!
    I’ve had characters murder another character. I’ve never committed the act myself, so are we to say, “If you haven’t done it, you cannot write about it? Rubbish!Racism, religious bias, writing only about our “corner of the world” doesn’t get it. We learn from the experience of “walking in another’s shoes.” Erase the doubters and keep doing your thing.

  5. Randy Yale says:

    Lyn, While the road to Hell . . ., I do believe that intentions matter. If a writer’s intention (in this case your intention) is to be truthful to the experience of the character–and unless it is a science fiction story based on a totally imaginary world–the real life experience that such a character would have, then not only do you have a “right,” you have an obligation to write.

    There are any number of excellent books of reporting, memoir, and history that can give one the details of others’ lives. Only fiction can provide an internal story, one that leads to greater empathy. So if a writer has found an honest voice, the writer’s own demographic reality is immaterial. Of course, finding the honest voice of a character who has a different life based on societal hierarchy is a huge challenge. But isn’t writing full of those?

  6. Lyn Hawks says:

    Bob, your comment about integrity is an important one. One of the ways you define is through “copious amounts of research” and I think you can view research as taking many forms: poring through primary and secondary texts; interviewing; listening; reflecting. Like you, I didn’t take the task lightly. I thought for a long time about Black English Vernacular and its million forms (I assume BEV emerges different from every soul, including whites who wish they were black). I thought a long time about my character Antoinette Mabry’s upbringing, her schooling, her current employment, and why she would choose the words she does. I also spent a week as part of a NEH grant studying civil rights history and pedagogy in Jackson, Mississippi, and Memphis, Tennessee. I have many favorite African-American authors whom I respect deeply, including Toni Morrison, James Baldwin, Toni Cade Bambara, and Terry McMillan. I’ve had long conversations with many friends and colleagues over the years about race, racism, multicultual literature, affirmative action, civil rights, and many other issues. All of these experiences fuse into a hunt to understand. Also, re: multicultural literature – my novel grapples with that issue and the canon in high schools and how teachers, students, and parents respond to a mandate to “multiculturalize” it, when that call began in the late 80’s, early 90’s.

    Nancy, you talk about empathy and the need to follow your heart. I think when people put their politics before art they aren’t listening to the soul, and the soul says, There are no boundaries. I would hope someone of a different race would write about a particular white woman of a particular age in a particular place (like 40 year-old me living in Chapel Hill, NC – white girl who ain’t a Southerner, ain’t really a Californian, ain’t a Coloradan, ain’t a Belgian — who’s lived all these places and can’t be categorized but CAN be captured on a page and hey, I dare someone to do that so I can star in someone’s novel!

    Randy, your points about honesty and empathy…agreed, and I think I’ve wrestled with that challenge fair to middlin’ but I do want to have blind spots pointed out by others, and grow from this writing experience. I was initially hurt by my writers’ group challenges to the BEV but I went back and found that I had written language too stereotypically. I also really tried to empathize — not in a bleeding-heart way — but because this voice inside me, this intention, was to let a voice be heard. The voice insisted on speaking and the story flowed out of me and kept coming back to me, demanding I revisit every line. In that way, intentions were as pure (perhaps not as the driven snow but who’s as good as that). 🙂

    Thanks to everyone for commenting!

    Lyn

  7. Anonymous says:

    …then there’s Arthur Golden’s Memoirs of a Geisha. The author is not female nor is he Japanese. He did do ten years of research to write the book.

    Lyn, your teaching experience in public and private schools gives you the right to write Midrift. As a teacher, you walked the path with kids and parents from all kinds of backgrounds. You are keen observer and an amazing writer. Congratulations on the publication of Midrift. Keep on, keeping on!

    Best wishes, YM

  8. Lyn Hawks says:

    Thank you! I try to keep my eyes peeled and ears ready, hoping that my observations are fair snapshots of what I find so fascinating in all our human behaviors. I need to pick up Memoirs.












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